Secret Life of Humans, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Ava is fascinated by human beings. Not just generally, but in the academic, evolutionary sense. She’s also going through a tough time and needs a break, so she’s on the pull. Jamie’s also after a distraction and the two matched on Tinder, so now, after millions of years of evolution, these two people are having dinner.

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I Am My Own Wife, Wimbledon Studio Theatre

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Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a collector and museum curator in East Berlin who survived WWII and the the Stasis, and murdered her abusive father when she was a teenager. More remarkably, she was transgender. I Am My Own Wife is primarily her biography and a tribute to her achievements, but also the research process by playwright Doug Wright. Wright set out to make a play about her, but was so affected by her stories that his reactions make their way into the text. It deservedly won all major American theatre awards after its Broadway premier in 2003, but Unusual Theatre Company’s production doesn’t serve the text as well as it could.

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Miss Nightingale, The Vaults

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

Fly to the front line. Sing some songs. Win the war. Live happily ever after. Sounds easy, right? That’s the idyllic goal that two queers, an unmarried mother and an unborn child feel in Matthew Bugg’s dreamy production of Miss Nightingale. This gorgeous depiction of 1940’s Britain hits you right in the feels and pulls on all heartstrings. The set provides an intimate cabaret club vibe, decorated with posters stating memorable lines from the wonderful songs that are performed throughout.

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The Doppel Gang, Tristan Bates Theatre

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By an anonymous guest critic

If you’re a Marx Brothers fan like myself, you might go to this production by the company JUST SOME THEATRE with some trepidation. Are these four performers going to do justice to the Brother’s brilliant form of slapstick comedy? It’s nice to report that the answer is yes. The company’s attempt to create new Marx Brothers material is actually the strongest part of this show.

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Scorched, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Jack, feeble in body and mind, wiles away the days watching news broadcasts from operation Desert Storm. The former WWII soldier, now safe and looked after in a care home, vividly recounts memories from his youth and on the front line. He may not be aware of the present, but his past is ever present and will not let me rest. Solo show Scorched is a moving and honest look at veterans’ experiences of combat and ageing, leaving the troubling feeling that society is not fulfilling its responsibility to this vulnerable demographic.

Lisle Turner’s script, inspired by her grandfather’s life, is an expressionistic snapshot of his thoughts at the twilight of his life. Stationed in Egypt during the war, we hear tales of heat, explosions, and beautiful women interspersed with memories from his childhood. The storyline is loosely constructed; it is episodic rather than wholly linear. This structure works well considering that these are Jack’s memories he plays out for himself rather than for an audience arbitrarily included in the action without being allocated any clear identity.

There are some beautiful design elements: Jack remembers tattooing himself and this is projected on his arm rather than shown with makeup. To see something normally considered permanent conveyed through an ephemeral form is a fitting reminder that nothing truly lasts forever and Jack is nearly at the end of his life. The loveliest of other whimsical projections is on a cascade of sand poured from a dinner tray. This sand is everywhere, like the memories that cling onto Jack’s deteriorating mind and are constantly discovered in unsuspecting places – a clever device either by Turner or director Claire Coache. A simple puppet is used well but not enough, as are mundane objects that transform into others more exciting – an umbrella becomes a fishing rod, a footstool is a motorbike. This object manipulation is a lovely surprise and suits Jack’s mental state well, so it could be utilised further to comment on the childhood of old age.

Robin Berry plays Jack with power and pathos, initially with a delicate frailty that gives way to a younger, more powerful man who enjoys boxing, horse riding, dancing and defending his country. Berry has a strong physical presence that is eminently watchable and a range that makes him believe both as the older and younger Jack.

Strengthening and streamlining the staging and theatrical devices will help make the script feel less like a random collection of memories, and reordering some of scenes would also have the same effect. Jack is a fantastic character and the play is a fitting tribute to elderly veterans, though also serves to pay homage to a generation that soon will no longer be with us.

Scorched runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Agent of Influence: The Secret Life of Pamela More, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Lady Pamela More covers fashion and socialites for The Times and she has no interest in any other topic. As Britain’s involvement in the war becomes certain, her disinterest in politics and international affairs wanes, and her social circles are split into those who support Germany and those who believe the whispered stories coming across the channel. With newfound purpose and contacts, the use of her journalistic skills changes direction to a more practical use – she is recruited to spy on Britain’s elite.

Sarah Sigal reinvents Pamela from her 2014 Park Theatre play World Enough and Time, now making the character the primary subject of a solo performance. Reprised by Rebecca Dunn, Pamela recounts her wartime adventures through past-tense narration and dialogue between herself and impersonated peers. She meets and watches real people from British history, moulding a clear perspective of their wartime activities – this is the most interesting aspect of the narrative. Who the audience is, or why she is telling us her story is never made clear, though. Her tale is interesting enough, but what is it’s point?

The scenes Dunn enacts are more dynamic than the stretches of narration that span the years surrounding the war. She employs accents and an impressive vocal range to differentiate between herself and those she converses with, often with charm and humour. Her storytelling is good enough to maintain attention, but as no moral or message emerges from the text, the ambiguity of the script dwarfs Dunn’s ability.

Agent of Influence: The Secret Life of Pamela More suits a written format much more so than a staged one – it would make a lovely novella what with its detailed description of the setting and characters involved. Though its well performed and a good story in and of itself, theatricality gets in the way, making this solo performance piece fall flat.

Agent of Influence: The Secret Life of Pamela More runs through 28th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Savage, Arts Theatre

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Denmark in the mid-1930s was a great place to be if you were gay. Homosexuality was legalized in 1933 and a thriving club scene allowed gay men to meet and socialize publicly. But as the dark cloud of National Socialism swept Europe, safety became more precarious. Dr Carl Vaernet was one of their threats. A practicing GP with an interest in hormone therapy, the Danish Nazi Party member soon captured the attention of party higher ups with his therapies that he claimed cured homosexuality. Hired to cure gay prisoners at Buchenwald late in the war, he experimented on seventeen inmates before the war ended and he escaped to Argentina.

Claudio Macor’s latest play Savage focuses more on the story of Nikolai and his American boyfriend Zack than Dr Vaernet, but the lovers are soon separated and Nik becomes one of the doctor’s victims. The emerging subplot of an SS officer and his secret, gay love slave quickly becomes just as important as Nik and Zack, making Savage more of a play about homosexuality in WWII than specifically about Dr Vaernet and his horrific medical experiments. Spanning several years and multiple narratives, the script, sadly, doesn’t give in-depth attention to any particular character; individual stories are disrupted and incomplete. This would be a much more compelling text if Macor focused attention on one primary character rather than taking a scattergun approach. All of these characters have potential to steer a rich, interesting play that focuses on them, but none of them get the full, individual attention they deserve. There are some great set piece scenes, but the overall structure lacks focus.

Some of the performances are inconsistent and the cast present a range of styles, which distracts from the seriousness of the plot. There are a few good performances, though. Gary Fannin cuts a cold, scientific Dr Vaernet with a clear disgust for gay people; this professional face of homophobia and calm hatred is a most chilling one indeed. Emily Lynne as the doctor’s nurse viciously opposes the Nazis and blatantly defies their rules in a display of ferocious persistence. She’s a great contrast to the doctor’s calm hatred. The two pairs of lovers have moments of genuine care for each other, whereas other times feel forced.

Jamie Attle’s costumes are sharp and detailed, whilst David Shields’ set of rotating panels clarify location but are a bit clumsy. Macor also directs, ensuring his political messages get across but an additional pair of eyes could have developed more intimacy between the couples.

Though the topic is most serious indeed, there’s a distinct lack of joy in the beginning cabaret scene and between Nik and Zack. Macor clearly wants to raise awareness of the horrors of Vaernet’s work, but some lighter moments of exposition would emphasise this further. A dramaturg would not go amiss in order to streamline the script and performance styles in future productions, but this premier still has potential and exposes a historical figure too easily forgotten amidst more prominent Nazi war criminals.

Savage runs through 23 July.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.